Thursday, June 30, 2011

Judee Sill - Judee Sill

I'm sure you've read the articles about favourite musicians where they declare things like "I don't like to classify my music" when asked what style or category their music can be fitted into. I don't know about you readers out there, but that's not an answer I feel comfortable with.

Musicians don't like to be put into a box or want to feel constricted that what they do today is what they'll be doing next year. Fair enough, but if you're playing pop, what's wrong with saying so? Instead they feel they have to say that they're creating a concoction influenced by many styles. This is something I've discussed before with reference to Pentangle. Being influenced by the music of Duke Ellington doesn't mean you're a jazz musician.

So where would I put the music of Judee Sill? A difficult question to be sure. Allgedly, she called her music "country-cult-baroque" - an interesting moniker. Singing songs about Jesus as a cowboy (more on that later) with a little steel guitar in the background doesn't make this sound much like anything Loretta Lynn came up with, I tell ya. Baroque? Well, some of the songs DO have refrains that sound like she's been listening to Bach, I guess. Given the lyrical content, she could also be classified as Christian pop -and yet this is NOTHING like the lyrical or music content coming off an Amy Grant record, for reasons we'll go into soon. She was around at the time of other female songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Tapestry-era Carole King. While the music does have melodic elements of that so-called West Coast sound, she's attempting different things with orchestration, and certainly with the lyrics. So where does she fit in?

Judee grew up with a very hard existence. Broken home, drunk parents, abusive stepfather, reform school, drugs, holding up liquor stores (according to the liner notes of the re-released albums, she was afraid of saying "this is a fuck-up, mothersticker") and turning tricks. So superficially, this would not appear to be the life one leads that is heading towards the creation of an exquisitely beautiful form of art - but that's exactly what Judee Sill's music is.

I only came across her music about 5 or 6 years ago when it was being played over the system in a CD store in Melbourne. The two albums that had been released in her lifetime, "Judee Sill" and "Heartfood" had been packaged as a 2CD set with a swag of demos and live tracks as extras. When I heard the song "Jesus Was A Cross Maker", I was sold. Not being Christian and having no knowledge of Christian theology, might have made this a strange choice of song for me to be drawn to - yet, my impression is that this is not the sort of song you'll be hearing in church any time soon. The fact that she drew inspiration for writing this after reading The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis (which caused much controversy for imagining Christ as mortal) comes as no surprise. "Crayon Angels", the album's opener sounds like Judee wants to believe in something. The truth of this world isn't satisfying, but she's not sure that religion has all the answers - but she'll keep an open mind ("Guess reality is not as it seems....Holy visions disappeared from my view,
But the angels come back and laugh in my dreams......So I sit here hopin' for truth and a ride,
To the other side").

Her second album "Heartfood", is more highly regarded by fans, although I prefer the simplicity of the first. However, it contains two absolutely exquisite songs in "The Kiss" and "The Donor". To Judee, locked lips joining in "communion of a kiss" is the most beautiful pure thing that can be done. With her achingly beautiful piano and vibrato-free sweet voice, you really believe her words. The Donor musically combines piano, tympani, bells, and a chorus of voices. The lyrics are dream-like and speak of unsettling sleep. The chorus, such that it is has Judee singing "Kyrie eleison" - Lord Have Mercy. Judee explained that she wrote that song at a low time and was asking for God to give her a break.

So how do I classify this music? Is "uplifting" a genre? She turned her own difficult life and turned it into something wonderful for her art. You don't have to be Christian or believe in any deity to appreciate what's going on here. You just have to prepared to believe in beauty - whatever you want to call it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Songs That Left Me Speechless, Part 3 – This Is Where You Ain’t by Glenn Tilbrook

I believe there’s a misconception about happy songs being played in a major key with sad songs being played in a minor key. There are many sad songs in a major key (The Beatles’ “For No One”, The Beach Boys’ “Warmth Of The Sun”, Neil Young’s “Helpless”) and happy songs in a minor key (“Hava Nagilah”, The Hollies’ “Bus Stop”). For some reason, be it by association with film scores or possibly some neurological explanation (not that I’d know), we still tend to associate (in Western society anyway) major-happy and minor sad.

One explanation for the examples of major-sad given above could possibly be due to tempo. I’m not sure I can think of too many sad major-key up-tempo songs. “From Above” by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby sort of fits the bill. However, Glenn Tilbrook’s “This Is Where You Ain’t” certainly fits the bill.
Tilbrook and songwriting partner, Chris Difford, had to endure the tag of being the new Lennon- McCartney when their band Squeeze first appeared on the scene in the late seventies. Who wants to live up to that? It is true that they could write insanely catchy songs. (Come to think of it some of their songs could fit the bill under major-sad-up-tempo). “Up The Junction” is about a broken relationship with a vivid description of being financially up the creek (or junction!!!!) “Some Fantastic Place” is dedicated to a recently departed friend. “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” is the catchiest song about wanking since Pete Townshend got off from “Pictures of Lily”. “Last Time Forever” is a major key song about spouse abuse. Difford and Tilbrook had an insanely catchy way with a melody and clever lyric.
When Tilbrook recorded his first solo album, he possibly topped the lot at confusing our collective neurons by recording “This Is Where You Ain’t”, the album’s opener. When I hear this and close my eyes, I picture the Motown house band. I think of the Four Tops. I imagine ever so slight but tasteful soul singer’s choreography. It’s a song with a happy major key melody over a catchy beat.
It’s also a song about the aftermath of divorce.
Tilbrook’s lyrics evoke his feelings after the separation from his wife. He seems regretful it’s come to this and he’s sitting alone with the memories of previous good times.
                This is where we had some fun
                This is where we ate
                And now the fact I have to face is that
                This is where you ain’t
Tilbrook’s wife ended up moving to Australia from the UK with their children:
                I’m a long way from happy, you’re a long way from home
Of course, we’re only getting the poetic side of the story. There could have been shouting and dishes thrown and neglect, but that’s not how Tilbrook conveys his feelings here. One minute it was all good times, and the next it was all incredibly sad – and it’s all done to a deceptively happy sounding melody with a catchy beat.
Of course, if you’ve not heard the song and are just going by my description, it could be fair to say, “Maybe Tilbrook had it wrong. Maybe he should have slowed it all down or changed it to E minor”. Look, I can’t explain it in technical terms, but I think the melancholy the song conveys in its recorded version could not have worked if he’d changed anything about it. I don’t know how a great songwriter can successfully relay a downbeat story to an upbeat melody, but Tilbrook does it. A clever album compiler should put together an album of songs of this ilk and call it “Dancing With Hankies”.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Richard Thompson & The Art of the Break-Up Song

I’ve not done a comprehensive survey, but over a lifetime of listening to pop music, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of songs in popular stylings relate to matters of the heart. They might be songs of being in love or songs of being out of love. However, both sides of the subject have been a well-mined source of subject matter for tunesmiths since Adam said to Eve, “Wanna hang out?” I’m sure, dear reader and song-fan, there is nothing new in anything I’ve said so far.
I’m sure that someone attempting their PhD has written some lengthy piece on why we continue to listen to the same subject matter over and over again. Of course, there have been other song-writing movements over the last 50 or so years that have proved popular – songs about slaying dragons in Middle Earth (hey nonny nonny), getting high, telling the older generation they suck (funny how Roger Daltrey is still singing  My Generation in his sixties), and transvestisism.  Still, the songs about being in and out of love don’t quite go away.
I came to the music of Richard Thompson relatively late, about 1990. An announcer on Melbourne community radio continually raved how Thompson was the second coming. The claim was that Thompson was a guitarist’s guitarist (Eric who?), a songwriter who could really tell a story and convey a mood, and he even had a wonderful voice. My interest was piqued. I had to look into his music for myself.  I went into a store that had a copy of a new 3 CD Thompson anthology called “Watching The Dark”, and asked to listen to one of the discs.
The first song I heard was called “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven”. This was a moment in my life I will never forget.
Each verse is like a chapter of a great book that hooks you in from the opening line (“We were heroes then, and the girls were all pretty / and a uniform was a lucky charm that bought you the keys to the city”). The song tells the story of a returned World War 2 soldier, who finds that life in peace time affords him none of the respect he is due and he received during the war. He goes from being revered to being ignored by society, not even having a place to lay his head on at night. During leave he would attend dances, and  Al Bowlly, the big band leader, represented all that was good in the veteran’s life during the war. Now Bowlly’s gone, the war is over, and society has ditched our narrator to the dustbin of recent history as they try to grapple with the difficulties of rebuilding their lives after war. Thompson’s narrative is riveting – and I haven’t even referred to his superlative musicianship.
But that’s not the song this article is about.
In fact, I wish to talk about three songs, all connected thematically - they could even be joined to form a concept album - but all taking a very different approach. The start of this article referred to songs covering matters of the heart. So many pop songs, refer to the aftermath of a relationship as a time of great sorrow or a time for the song’s protagonist to move on. Thompson doesn’t take such a simple approach in his songs.
The three songs I wish to address are:
Razor Dance” shows the nasty aftermath of a relationship gone very wrong.
After the death of a thousand kisses
                Comes the catacomb of tongues
Who cans spit the meanest venom
                From the poison of their lungs
Each party to the separation “dances” dangerously around the other one to see what they can get away with, first passive-aggressively, then with full-on aggression as “gravity pulls them in”. The music reflects this tension with Thompson’s guitar playing continuous quavers in an ominous staccato fashion. “Take your partners for the razor dance” Thompson calls, but when does the band call time?
For Shame of Doing Wrong” was recorded by Thompson with his then-wife Linda on vocals, but for me the better interpretation is by ex-Fairport Convention lead singer (and Thompson cohort), the late great Sandy Denny. Thompson himself has sung it live, but Sandy’s interpretation gets to the heart of the matter. The song is sung from the perspective of someone who sees an ex-lover and unburdens herself with complete remorse over having done them an unspecified wrong.  She recalls the ideal times before “we went our separate ways”. There are always constant visual reminders of the good things she used to have, and implores her ex to not pay “for her deceiving heart”.
 On the surface, my description could be about any number of pop songs. However, this is a Richard Thompson song. The complete and utter regret of the singer is completely believable. This ain’t an ordinary “I know I’ve done you wrong, but please take me back” song – it’s a Richard Thompson “I know I’ve done you wrong, but please take me back” song. The singer knows she doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but begs for it anyway. The chorus contains one of the saddest lines I’ve heard in a lover’s lament  - “I wish I was a fool for you again.” When Sandy Denny sang this, and by extension Richard wrote it, you really believe it. The music is mid-tempo and in a major key, bus still somehow maintains the melancholic regret of the lyric.
Then there’s “Tear Stained Letter”. This is a funny aftermath-of-a-break-up song. It’s performed with Zydeco leanings (and was covered by Zydeco star Jo-el Sonnier) and sounds happy. The lyric betrays that with that with the wariness of the protagonist who’s broken up acrimoniously with someone, has decided to get on with his life, but lives in fear for the constant tear-stained letters left under the door. Keep an eye out for your pet rabbit!!! This isn’t a song that says, “We’ve split up, I miss you”. It says, “We’ve split up, now can you piss off?”
Have I mentioned this song is funny? When our protagonist is describing his violent ousting from the couple’s shared lodging, he sings that she “danced on his head like Arthur Murray (if you have to ask, you’re too young – trust me it’s a funny line). This is the only rock song I know of that rhymes “tea” as such: “I like coffee and I like tea / but I just don’t like this fiddle-dee-dee” Listen to the whole song. It’s clever and funny.
So Thompson has taken the one topic, and approached it from three different avenues. There’s the  dramatic approach of a mutually agreed acrimonious breakup. There’s the incredibly sad mournful regret of a relationship that could have continued if not for a wandering heart. Finally, there’s the humorous approach of a man fearing for his life from an unstable ex (that doesn’t read right, but it’s essentially true).
As suggested earlier, these songs can be connected as the one story. There’s the initial mutually agreed acrimonious breakup, followed by a period of mournful regret by one of the partners, but the story is taken up by the other partner who just want to move on without loss of life or limb. A Richard Thompson musical in the offing?  If lesser songwriters can plunder their back catalogue, surely RT has a winner with a musical based on drama, suspense and humour. Richard, if you’re reading this, my management services are at your disposal.